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Chapter One

TT is really not so difficult to know a man dead a thousand years
Aago. Considering how incomplete our knowledge usually is of
people who live in the samp city with us, or even oŁ die private life of
the mayor, it seems sometimes easier to know a dead man than a living
one. For one thing, the living man's life is not completed, and one
never knows what he is going to do next when a crisis comes. The
drunkard reforms, the saint falls, and the pastor runs away with a
choir girl A living man has always so many "possibilities". Then, too,
the living man has secrets, and some of the best secrets usually come
out long after the man is dead. That is why it is so difficult usually to
judge a contemporary, whose life is too close to us. Not so with a dead
poet like Su Tungpo. I read his journals, his seventeen hundred poems,
and his eight hundred private letters. The question of knowing or
not knowing a man has nothing to do with being his contemporary.
It is a matter of sympathetic understanding. After all, one knows only
those whom one really understands, and one completely understands
only those whom one really likes. I think I know Su Tungpo com-
pletely because I understand him, and I understand him because I like
him. The question of liking a poet is always a question of taste. I
think Li Po reached a greater height of sublimity and Tu Fu reached
a greater stature in his total impression as a poet 'great by all die
standards of greatness in poetry—freshness, naturalness, technical skill,
and compassion. But without any apology, my favourite poet is Su

For me the great personality of Su Tungpo today stands out more
sharply and fully etched against his life and writings, than that of any
other Chinese writer. There are two reasons for the clearness of the
mental portrait of Su Tungpo in my mind. First, it comes from the
brilliance of Su Tungpo's own mind, stamped upon every line he wrote,
like the black lustre of ink in the two original bamboo paintings by
Su that I have seen, which still glistens as if it were applied only an
hour ago. This is a curious phenomenon, as in the case of Shakespeare,
too. The vitality of Shakespeare's lines, coming straight from a sensi-
tive and generous mind, remains fresh today. In spite of the labours
of generations of research scholars, we still know extremely little about
his external life; yet we feel some four hundred years after his death
that we know the recesses of his mind by the power of emotion he
injects into his writing.

The second reason is that there is a more complete record of Su